Beta Life (Udaipur)

And to think, we almost didn’t make it to Rajasthan at all…

Our 12 hour train journey from Goa dumps us in Mumbai at 9pm.  Due to the inexplicable intricacies of the tourist quota reservation system we’d been unable to make an onward reservation.  But since we’ve adopted a lackadaisical approach to planning (“it all works out exactly as it should, right?”), we shoulder our packs hoping luck is on our side.  The hunt for the reservations manager dead ends in a dingy office crawling with rodents and dispassion.  That night’s train to Varanasi was full, which is not to say unavailable, however the prospect of a further 40 hours on a train without the guarantee of even a seat was (to our spoiled western constitutions) not a tenable one.   After a truly uninspiring night in one of Mumbai’s less hospitable hotels we landed back at the ticket reservation window with the optimistic realization that we were now perfectly situated to catch the afternoon train to Udaipur.

Tickets booked, we have five hours to kill in Mumbai.  Not particularly difficult, unless your new $4 flip flops are cutting holes in your feet making every step an agony, you break the skin stubbing your big toe, your Mumbai-bought handbag splits apart and you’ve barely slept the night before.   In the end there was nothing else for it.  Lunch at a swanky hotel was my best chance to escape the day without tears.  It only took five minutes in the lush banquet seats, half a mouthful of white wine and the prospect of a cumin cucumber gazpacho and a mixed green salad with tomato, asparagus, olive and parmesan to restore my sense of zen.  Unfortunately somehow time had accelerated during my near-tantrum and the soup was hurriedly cancelled when we realized we only had half an hour until we needed to leave for the train station again.  Luckily the salads were prompt (and delicious) and the cab dropped at Mumbai CST with forty minutes to collect our backpacks from left luggage and make our way to the platform.  Curiously our train wasn’t listed on the departures board.   Gail went to investigate.  Five minutes later she darted through the crowds to where I stood, wearing two backpacks and an annoyed expression.  “We’re at the wrong station.  We need to get in a cab *now*.”

Sprinting up to a taxi driver shouting that you need to get to Mumbai Central (CNT not CST) *now* does not put you in much of a position to bargain.  Sitting in unmoving traffic at station exit, having agreed to pay quintuple the usual rate, I gave way to petulant and adolescent despair.  “We’re never going to make it.  This guy has completely ripped us off and it’s all a total waste of time.”  Gail wisely left me to my pouting but magically we arrived at CST with seven whole minutes to spare.  Enough time for the driver to try to extort a further 20 rupees from us (“for baggage”) but not so much that I had the luxury of the time to tell him exactly where he could go.

We made it to our seats breathless and drenched in sweat, not ideal with a 20 hour journey ahead of you, but hey… at least we made the train.

Which brings me to now, sitting on the roof top café of our guesthouse (recommended by a friend of Gail’s for its clean chic rooms and warm and funny host Manchu who’s impressively long red beard and perpetual good natured smile explain why no one has trouble using his nickname, “Baba”) while the sun sets over Lake Picholla with a bottle of Kingfisher and the International Herald Tribune (cleverly swiped during the rushed departure from said swanky Mumbai hotel) watching the sunset glow lean slowly into the stone of the old city, making the Queen’s Palace blush.

An editorial in the paper is responding to an article recently published in Atlantic Monthly that’s apparently caused a stir among the New York intelligentsia.  Apparently so-and-so lady scholar has concluded that, in contrast to the modern American feminist declaration, women cannot truly “have it all”; all being husband, children, home, family and high flying career (an “alpha” life).  The responsibilities of child-bearing and rearing are not compatible with the pressures of a continually ascending working life and it would be better for women in general if the idea that it is possible to do both simultaneously was abandoned in favor of a less stringent notion of success as a series of peaks and plateaus where work priorities give way to priorities of home and family throughout one’s career (a “beta” life).  So-and-so New York Times gentleman editorialist has taken this idea further, saying the acceptance of a beta life would be beneficial not just to women but to the whole of Americans, who in general are under an unhealthy pressure to be perpetually ascending, giving no quarter to extracurricular responsibilities and priorities like family, health, hobbies or leisure.

I left the US over a decade ago, moving to London almost immediately after college ostensibly for a guy and a Master’s degree.  Within 18 months I was finished with both but my mother’s immediate assumption that I would come home baffled me.  Why would I do that?  Home for the holidays over the coming years, my mother’s supplications grew impatient, joined by my grandmother’s then my cousins’ then my friends.  “Seriously now.  When are you coming home?”  My grandmother, a war bride from Italy worried over me, “But sweetheart, I know what it is to live outside your own country.  I love my children and I regret nothing but you live outside your own country too long and you are an outsider everywhere.”  How do you tell your grandmother that you just don’t want to come home?  Better to rationalize instead; “but nonna, I live in a global hub, earn a stronger currency, have better health care and twice as much vacation time than all of you!  You think I could come home twice a year if I lived in California?”

Six years, seven addresses, the retirement of a boss / mentor and a funding gap in the arts after London won the 2012 Olympics later, I was ready to move on but not quite ready to go home.   I grew up skiing in Vermont but hadn’t been on a mountain in years.  Comparative to backpacking, skiing is astronomically expensive.  But I had a friend who’d worked a season in Italy and loved it.  So I gave my notice and got at a small hotel in the French Alps for the winter, thinking I’d do a season, travel on my savings and then go home.

Five years later I’m sitting on a rooftop in Rajasthan reading my hometown paper (because yes, the New York Times is still my “hometown” and preferred paper), not a whole lot closer to going home than I’ve ever been.  Somehow my years abroad have crystalised my sense of myself as an American (you can never really escape where you’re from) as well as my national pride (the only positive outcome of the W. administration during which I discovered how much of my country and culture I am willing to defend against fashionable ignorant hatred).  But nothing has clarified my reasons for NOT wanting come home like the two recent summers I spent back in New Jersey.

Working at an oceanfront restaurant on the Jersey Shore (if you’re snickering at the locale let me guarantee you, the show is a farce and you’d be lucky to live there) one evening a table of two older gentlemen roped me into their conversation using some multisyllabic word regarding something I no longer recall.  When I took a moment to think before responding, the chattier gentleman gave me a condescending smile.

“It means ­­_____.”

“Thank you sir but I know what it means.  I was just framing my response. “

“Oh, I suppose you’re a student.”

“No sir, I completed my studies nearly 10 years ago.”

“Really.  And where did you go?’  And upon hearing my qualifications, aghast “you went to Smith?  Why are you a waitress?”

And I told him what to anyone who knows me is apparently clear.  I’ve spent five years living somewhere most people only get to visit.  I speak two languages fluently and two more passably.  I have unlimited vacation time within which to fit my travels and have seen more of the world than most people will ever have opportunity and the freedom to continue exploring with the stability of knowing that no matter where I am, I can pretty much always get a job.  Plus, I like waiting tables.  I like working on my feet.  I like interacting with new people every day (present company excluded).  I like the pressure and the adrenaline and the satisfaction of a busy Saturday night.  I like working with food and drink and being the host of someone’s night out.  I enjoy my job.

Unfortunately my interlude with Mr. Small Mind on a High Horse (I do hope you enjoyed your seared sushi grade tuna and glass of sauvignon blanc) is illustrative of exactly what the New York Times is talking about and exactly why I don’t want to come home.  Yes there’s the anti-intelligentsia, anti-environmentalism, the racism, homophobia, xenophobia, bullying, religious right, consumerism, reality television, misogynistic standards of beauty (etc… etc… etc…) but I’d be happy to come home and be part of the crusade to change all that (props to all of you crusaders out there).  The thing that really stops me is this; the underlying insidious and from one I can tell near-universally accepted preconception that there is one definition of success; one path through life, one way to live.  Go to school.  Go to college.  Get a job.  Buy a house.  Get married.  Have children.  Buy things.  Buy more things.  Buy bigger and better things.  Teach your children the above.  Die.

I feel it from every quarter in the US.  From my mother who thinks I need “stability,” my family who think I “can’t live like this forever,” even the friends who worry about “what I’ll do when I’m old.”  None of which makes any sense.  I currently have zero debt, an IRA and more savings than most people I know.  So what’s the problem with the way I live exactly?  I don’t come home drained from a 9-hour day staring at a computer screen to be assaulted by the television with advertisements for all the useless things I’m now able to buy?  I don’t have to squeeze my errands (doctor, post office, grocery store) into my 30 minute lunch break or precious weekend hours like the millions of other people standing in unending lines?  I’m not working a 50 hour week, with 10 days vacation a year, a negligible margin of error for illness and pathetic provision for treatment should I be so unfortunate as to become ill?  Which, by the way, is the suspension underpinning the dog-eat-dog tribalist culture that’s become defined by the majority cultural ills I’ve listed already.  America might find itself a more welcoming, accepting, open, inquisitive, dynamic nation if we reexamined this every-man-for-himself-race-to-the-top rags-to-riches ascendiary national ambition.

This is what I’m thinking on a rooftop in India.  We’re on our third Kingfisher with some delicious vegetable pakoras and green chilli sauce.  The sun has slid behind the mountains leaving the sky an alarmingly beautiful palate of rosy pinks and deep blues, while the streaky golden glow makes a halo around the peak silhouetting the Monsoon Place’s distant turrets.  A swarm of huge majestic bats have unroosted from some cave and streaked over head like a passing shower of comets.  Lake Picholla is a deep and luscious navy reflecting the dark shadows of the old city and the golden auras of evening lights as they illuminate the old city’s windows and flood the battlements of the City Place.  The paper is read.  Dinner has been ordered.  People are arriving to enjoy to view and hear other travelers’ stories.  Tomorrow I’ll eat the best Thali yet in a rickshaw driver recommended station-side hole in the wall, joke with a chai wallah in the vegetable market and see the exquisite miniature painting that Udaipur is known for up close in the home of a third generation miniature painter.  The day after I’m going to play explorer in one the biggest fort in Asia surrounded by the second (to that one in China) longest wall in the world.  But I don’t know that yet.  Right now I’m just enjoying the sunset, the drink, the night air and the company.  This is my beta life.  Glad the New York Times finally gets the idea.

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